Freedom From Fear

Star Psychologist Philip Zimbardo: On Cruelty, the Heroic Imagination and Self-Imposed Prisons of the Mind

The following remarks are exerpted from the Webster Vienna 2007 graduation ceremony.

In Paradise Lost, John Milton described both the nobility and facility of the human mind by reminding us that, “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a Heaven of Hell, or Hell of Heaven.”

I have spent much of the past 50 years of my life as a social psychologist-researcher and teacher, demonstrating the vulnerability of most people when caught up in the vortex of powerful social situations. I try to create controlled conditions in laboratory settings that allow me to test causal hypotheses about the nature of human nature.

In general, I have shown that social conditions can exert powerful influences over the way we feel, think and act, even though we are not aware of their subtle and pervasive impact on us. My research has shown how most rational people can behave irrationally, sane people can act crazy, and good people can do bad things—sometimes, under specified social conditions.

My research on the psychology of evil has centered on the processes of de-individuation (feeling anonymous) and dehumanization (treating others as “Enemies” with less than human attributes).

My most well known research is the Stanford Prison Experiment that demonstrated how easy it is for ordinary people to behave in evil ways toward others when de-individuation and dehumanization were combined in a realistic prison setting. Normal, healthy college students were randomly assigned to play the roles of prisoner or guard in a mock prison scheduled to last 2 weeks.

However, I was forced to end the study a week earlier because it had gotten out of control. Nearly half the volunteer prisoners began having “emotional breakdowns” after being brutalized repeatedly by other students acting as guards. These young men given unlimited power in their new guard role abused both that power and their prisoners by behaving sadistically, taking delight in creating ways to humiliate and degrade “their prisoners.”

Having total power over others without moral constraints or supervision by higher authorities can transform good people into perpetrators of evil, as we have seen in the abuses by American soldiers in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison– which reveals remarkable parallels with my Stanford Prison.

I have also been responsible for one line of research that did just the opposite of the Stanford Prison Experiment – it helped to liberate people from psychological prisons. One self-imposed silent prison is shyness.

[The first of its kind, Prof. Zimbardo’s Shyness Clinic founded in the 1970s, teaches sufferers to reduce social anxiety and strengthen their resolve to reconnect to others. – Ed.]

Shyness is a cruel prison. We each contribute to the growing epidemic of shyness, as a consequence of the socially isolating impact of many new technologies,  by failing to do one simple thing — helping to make others feel “special.” We can do that by criticizing less while complimenting and praising others more often. We need to substitute greater cooperation for competition, and being more openly accepting of others. We can also help our children train daily for “social fitness” just as they might do in athletic training to be more physically fit.

One must wonder if the murders of students and teacher’s at Virginia Tech University a short while ago, could have been prevented had anyone stepped forth to give counsel, guidance and friendship to that lonely, alienated, and shy young man, who without that social comfort was transformed instead into a mass murderer.

Beyond shyness, shame is a humbling prison. As a child growing up in poverty in the South Bronx in New York City, I was often shamed by social workers, clinic doctors, and others who saw us as a burden on their society. I still remember the sadness and anger I felt when being told that “beggars can’t be choosers,” so I was forced to accept the ugly clothes they were handing out without any complaints.  Shame is one consequence of prejudice and discrimination.  To combat that evil, we must find new ways to encourage tolerance for diversity, and to celebrate differences among us as contributing to the beautiful composite that is the mosaic of human nature.

Time Traps create unrecognized prisons. People who focus excessively on memories of negative past experiences are more likely to get depressed, and become more angry and violence prone. When a nation or groups within a culture collectively share such a past-negative time perspective, the threat of centuries’ old revenge and blood feud is ever present, as we have seen in genocidal wars in many nations in our own times. [We need] future-oriented strategies to combat those old-fashioned myths and outmoded revenge scenarios.

However, a unique prison for many young people is being totally present-oriented — with a focus on either hedonism or present fatalism. To be trapped in the present-hedonistic prison creates an illusion of freedom to do whatever gives one pleasure without concern for future costs and consequences.

Those are at risk for all addictive behaviors, which start with pleasure and end in disaster.  Present-fatalists take no action, because they have internalized the belief that fate controls their destiny. This fatalistic view confines many families to prisons of poverty and suppresses motivation to make changes in their lives of quiet desperation.

The ideal time perspective that I advocate is learning to develop a balanced blend of a moderate level of Future orientation with a Positive Past orientation adding a dash of present–hedonism on the side.

In many of these psychological prisons, we exchange our personal freedoms for promises of security, and for simple solutions to complex issues. That trade-off is filled with dangerous illusions. Right now in many nations, especially in the United States of America, national leaders are proposing that same trade-off in response to the threat of global terrorism. They promise to make the homeland safe and guarantee security in return for citizens sacrificing some of their hard-won basic freedoms.

The more freedom we surrender to buy the illusion of security, the more we are doing the terrorists’ work for them since their threat alone is sufficient to induce democracies to ask citizens to trade some freedoms for a promise of security.

In his classic work, Erich Fromm warned us decades ago that dictators are always eager to stage such trades—and they should be avoided or challenged by freedom-loving people everywhere.

Terrorist threats come from extreme fundamentalism within and outside our nations. They must be opposed not by nation wars, but through wise diplomatic conflict resolution, and also by reaching into the hearts and minds of potential terrorists to change their lives in constructive ways.

We must give them hope for a better future through education and adequate resources to live fuller, more meaningful lives without violence. It should be the task of democratic governments to enrich the lives of their own citizens by enhancing their freedoms while promoting justice, equity, and personal dignity for all people.

To read Prof. Zimbardo’s complete remarks see the Webster Vienna Website:: 

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